Inside Chanel’s Ateliers for the Métiers d’Art Collection

Last December, actor Kristen Stewart sat in a castle in France’s Loire Valley, the sole guest at Chanel’s 2020–21 Métiers d’art show. Had a global pandemic not gripped the world, surely others would have been there too: Anna Wintour, Edward Enninful, perhaps front-row regulars Sofia Coppola, Cara Delevingne, and Lily-Rose Depp. Still, the collection by creative director Virginie Viard was presented with grandeur. That is, after all, the Chanel way—a sky-high standard set by Viard’s predecessor, the late Karl Lagerfeld.

Under his creative direction, his perfectionism, his ability to land at the ever-elusive crux of timelessness and modernity with each collection, a once-flailing Chanel was revived to the tune of billions in revenue and worldwide adoration. But it wasn’t just Lagerfeld who made Chanel the pinnacle of luxury fashion. It was the artisans from the House of Lesage, handweaving samples of Chanel’s fancy tweeds; it was the embroiderers at Atelier Montex, festooning fabrics with sequins and crystals; and it was the shoemakers, leatherworkers, and goldsmiths who craft accessories on which those with the means don’t flinch at spending four to five figures. For years Chanel has turned to these speciality houses, almost all established in France, and boasting rich histories of expert craftsmanship, to bring its designs to life. The creative partnerships have grown so strong that Chanel began acquiring the ateliers in 1985, and finally united them in 1997 as “Les Métiers d’art de Chanel.” The first show was in 2002.

Inside Chanels Ateliers for the Mtiers dArt Collection
Photographs by Tomas Van Houtryve.

That year, recalls Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, “I asked Karl, What can you do? What can we do as Chanel to make [these ateliers] even more known, to recognize their expertise? Karl came up with this amazing idea, saying, ‘Some time in the beginning of December, I should develop a new collection, and the name of the collection will be Métiers d’art.’ And that was the beginning of the story.”

The inaugural Métiers d’art show, named Satellite Love, featured 33 looks presented to a small audience of editors and clients at Chanel’s haute couture salon in Paris. “It was not a big show, but it was a very sophisticated collection,” Pavlovsky says. The pieces, which were mostly black, white, and red, included a floor-length beaded gown; a pair of delicate, slim-cut lace pants; and satin heels hand-embroidered with floral motifs. In the years since, each Métiers d’art collection has been inspired by a specific location across the globe, with many of the shows being hosted in those places. Shanghai, Dallas, and Hamburg are among cities Chanel’s notoriously large-scale productions have descended on. Unlike couture pieces, Métiers d’art looks are produced for Chanel boutiques and are consistently top sellers.

“It was quite amazing to be able to make [2020–21 Métiers d’art] happen with such a level of restrictions,” Pavlovsky says, noting exhaustive back-and-forth between the house, the château, and public officials to ensure that all precautions were followed. Critics have argued that fashion shows are no longer necessary given the global reach technology affords, and some have taken the industry to task for what’s seen as an unnecessary expense, especially amid a global pandemic.